Saturday, January 11, 2014

Procession of the Dead

      Okay, so the rundown is as follows: Procession of the Dead by Darren Shan is a brilliant, brutal, twisted crime story set in a massive nameless city full of green fog, strange characters, and enigmatic plots. The story follows the rise of Capac Raimi, a small-time gangster in The City who is taken under the wing of The Cardinal, an eccentric crime lord with an interest in fate, puppets, progress, and possibly world domination. 

               The book is strongest when talking about the city, with vivid descriptions backing up the insane cast and rapid dialogue. In particular, the characters of Conchita and Paucar Wami are excellently done, though The Cardinal deserves a special place for being convincing even at his most unhinged (and he gets pretty unhinged). 

                 But the book is weakest with a climax that more stops than ends, and ties everything up into a bow that wasn't completely needed. Furthermore, the main character's weird mood and behavioral swings, while they make sense given the trajectory of the book, are just a little distracting. 

                  This does not stop the book from being incredibly high-quality. Anyone who enjoys a good mystery and can get past the violence and general weirdness of the premise is strongly suggested to buy this and start reading immediately. 

More, as always, below. 

"They say if The Cardinal pinched the cheeks of his arse, the walls of the city bruised."
- Capac Raimi

              And with that line, the twisted journey into the world of The City begins. It's a powerful first line, while not the best quote in the book or even the best line in the book. But it's the opening line, and indeed the first sentence of the opening monologue of a remarkable book. I admit, I went into this one almost completely blind, with only the copy on the back of the book (which made me think I was getting one of the dark urban fantasies that the steampunk era has made the rage these days) and that first line to let me know what I was in for. About two pages later, a blind priest shows up in the middle of a rainstorm. And by that point, I was already hooked. 

              Procession of the Dead is the story of Capac Raimi, a man in his late twenties who wants to be a gangster in the large and enigmatic city known only as "The City". The book follows Capac as he gets off of the train at the station, notices a strange priest during a sudden rainstorm, and then goes to work as a small-time criminal for his uncle, Theo. Capac and Theo slowly grow their operation with the hopes that they will eventually be noticed by the city's crimelord, a man known as "The Cardinal", and thus graduate to the major leagues. Or Theo wants that, anyway. Capac sets his sights somewhat higher, as his intended prize is the big brass ring: He wants to take out The Cardinal and rule the city all by himself. And for a while, Theo and Capac keep going, until one night a deal goes wrong and everyone but Capac is killed in an ambush with one of The Cardinal's underbosses.

And then things get weird.

               Capac is taken to The Cardinal, who seems more preoccupied with puppets and chaos theory than anything going on in his city. The eccentric crime boss takes Capac under his wing and has him work as an insurance salesman, with an eye on continuing his work. As a sideline, Capac does some errands for The Cardinal: Business deals, talking with his associates, and various other odd jobs. But slowly, Capac starts to find things...strange. Friends will disappear without warning, and no one will remember them. He's stalked by the fearsome serial killer and assassin Paucar Wami, a man with snakes tattooed on his face and no remorse in murdering people, who seems to only want with him. He slowly realizes he has no memory of his time before the city, a whole twenty-seven or twenty-eight years of life (he doesn't actually know how old he is) that is somehow strangely blank. A strange green fog blankets the city. And this is just the beginning.

               Capac desperately needs to find how he fits into the puzzle that is the city. But with enemies closing in and the people he trusts mysteriously vanishing, will he survive long enough? And what will he find if he does?

                The first thing I have to praise is the dialogue. Darren Shan hits a balance somewhere in an intersection between David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, and hard-boiled gangsters. The Cardinal in particular gets a series of beautifully unhinged monologues about random chance and divination and how using such things allows him to control the city far better than any plans or actual strategy. Conchita, a friend of Capac's who lives in the same apartment building, gets some good lines. Conchita is an interesting character, acting kind of like The City's conscience and cautioning Capac that the price for absolute power might not be worth the price he'll have to pay. Even Paucar Wami, a former hitman of The Cardinal, gets a great casual dialogue where he talks with Capac about the city, and why the two of them might have more in common than they think. Wami is the most interesting character, if only because his dialogue and manner are both very casual, while he himself is far from it. While the dialogue is more literary than organic, the turns of phrase are very distinct to the characters. The only difference is Capac, but since we get most of our exposition from him in the first place, he's the audience surrogate and needs to be a bit more blank.

               Second, there's The City itself. Now, while I've said before that any city should be as much a character as the ones inhabiting it, Shan takes this one step further and has the city be integral to every character. They're drawn to it. Sometimes they can't leave it. It is quite literally their whole world, and that it feels so alien and adversarial while at the same time feeling so strangely welcoming. Yes, it's run by brutal gangsters. Yes, mysterious green fog blankets the city every once and a while. Yes, it's an insane place to be. But it has a kind of allure to it. A beauty to it that isn't immediately obvious, even when the narrative gets deep enough to show it off. While not explicitly described that way, I got the sense of an art-deco cityscape like those in Dark City. Something with a much less modern aesthetic*, but at the same just modern enough to put it out of place. Between the bizarre, vivid imagery (some of which, in keeping with the book, probably has Incan overtones) and the people who inhabit it, it makes the city feel alive. 

              And finally, as I've waxed poetically on them for two paragraphs without actually doing so, I love the characters. Each one is unique in their own way, from Y Tse Lapontaine, who acts as a mentor and a guide away from The Cardinal's brutal power schemes, to Conchita, who serves as the most innocent member of the cast due to a rather horrific condition I shan't print here. And not just in the way they act and the things they do, But the general core of their being. It says something that The Cardinal, while unhinged, was quite persuasive in his view that people should only get two hours of sleep a night. That Wami came off as both fearsome and strangely affable despite his profession and the fact that he keeps a severed head in his fridge. That some of Capac's actions unsettle me because he exudes this air of familiarity, that he's supposed to be the closest thing to a hero and yet he does such nasty things. Shan's work with his characters is the best part of the book, and he understands that the colorful heroes and villains are part of any noir work, going back to the pulp era. 

                But there are two problems with the work. First, while it's easy to imprint upon Capac Raimi, he is a little bit of a blank. There were times when hearing him talk, I knew exactly who he was. There were other times I truly wondered "Now why the hell did he do that?" But as much as this annoyed me, it was actually explained and foreshadowed by a bigger problem with the work. A problem that cannot and should not be ignored, despite how much I love the book and its insane hell-ride through the city streets. 

And that problem is, dear readers, the ending. 

              The ending feels like kind of a cop-out. It makes perfect sense, and explains everything going on. The plot's twists all revolve around it, and it fits the book perfectly. But it also rips the entire mystery to shreds. All the atmosphere, all the strangeness, all the odd quirks that made The City worth exploring...explained in full. While there are still a few interesting mysteries here and there, and while it doesn't explain absolutely everything (there are still one or two weird hairpin turns that haven't been completely explained yet), it's kind of disappointing to learn the entire secret of the city and go "Oh, that's what happened". I felt a little cheated, especially since exposition is used to spell out the climax.

               But while the payoff feels dissatisfying to me, it does fit the stylish tone of the work, and fits perfectly into the atmosphere. And that's the most important part. Procession of the Dead is a work that values style over all else. A work that trades mainly on atmosphere and its insane color and characters and manages to use them to deliver a brilliant, at times brutal magical-realist surrealist crime novel. I strongly suggest buying this book. If it sucks you in the way it sucked me in, if it manages to catch you and get you to wonder what's going on, if it can get you to stick around to that ending, it'll be well worth the price of admission for you, too. 

I'll be waiting when you get off the train in The City. Look for the guy giving the blind Incan priest bunny ears during the sudden rainshower.

*Sidenote, I have no love for modern architecture. Especially since it's kind of...samey. Retro buildings or nothing. 

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